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A corruption scandal has added a dark footnote to the Tokyo Olympics

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Japan's Olympic Committee has pledged to take measures to try to stem corruption. As a bribery scandal unfolds, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo that the scandal is a dark footnote to last year's controversial Summer Games that were held amid a raging pandemic.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Prosecutors have arrested former Tokyo Olympic organizing committee member Haruyuki Takahashi and several company bosses accused of bribing him. They include the head of a clothing retailer that made Olympic uniforms, a publishing company that printed programs for the Games and a toymaker that made stuffed Olympic mascots. Veteran Tokyo-based sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi has been following the case.

NOBUYA KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately in Japanese society, there has always been a culture in which when you want to do something, you ask for a favor from someone who's powerful. Takahashi exploited this culture.

KUHN: In exchange for the bribes, Takahashi allegedly secured sponsorship deals for the companies and the right to sell Olympic-branded merchandise. Seventy-eight-year-old Takahashi is a former executive at Dentsu, Japan's largest advertising firm. Dentsu helped bring in a record $3.6 billion in corporate sponsorship for the Tokyo Games. They've been playing that role since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

JULES BOYKOFF: The 1980s is when the Olympics start to really see this flood of corporate money.

KUHN: Jules Boykoff is a historian of the Olympics at Pacific University Oregon.

BOYKOFF: And that just increases the chances that people grabbing in with their paws and trying to milk the Olympic machine with both hands.

KUHN: French prosecutors have also questioned Takahashi, who admitted giving gifts to a member of the International Olympic Committee to secure his support for Tokyo's bid for the Games.

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KUHN: Tokyo was awarded the Games in 2013. Prosecutors have also questioned former Olympic organizing chief and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who brought Takahashi onto the organizing committee. But Mori was questioned as a witness, not a suspect. Jules Boykoff says this bribery scandal is tame compared to previous instances of corruption, including bribery connected with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

BOYKOFF: But that doesn't mean it's any less serious. After all, the Olympics spent a ton of public money to make them happen in Tokyo, and I think there should be some measure of accountability for that money.

KUHN: The Tokyo Games will primarily be remembered for being postponed a year, then held despite strong public opposition in Japan to going ahead with them in the middle of a pandemic. Sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi is glum about the future prospects for sports in Japan.

KOBAYASHI: (Through interpreter) The legacy of the Tokyo Olympics is that it destroyed people's illusion about the Olympics and their unconditional admiration for sports. And that's an important lesson for Japan.

KUHN: On Thursday, Japan's Olympic Committee said it would discuss anti-corruption measures. It appears to be aimed at keeping the current scandal from undermining the northern city of Sapporo's bid to host the 2030 Winter Games.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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